Unsung Oscars

They capture sound, set moods, create the right noise - and even make buildings disappear. But you may never have heard of them. Who are they?

The Academy awards were organized for two reasons: 1) to recognize the people who are the best at pretending to be other people (actors), and 2) to recognize the people who help those people to be the best at pretending to be other people (directors, cinematographers, etc.). But what about the people who help the people who help people pretend to be other people? There will be no Oscars for them on Sunday night.

Today, though, we thought we'd give them a little recognition. Here are a few of the lesser-known laborers on movie sets:

Make way for 'boom man'

Sounds like a super hero, doesn't it? But he's not on the set to keep it crime-free. Rather, the boom man (who sometimes, in fact, is a woman) holds the "boom mike" for the actors. The boom mike is a microphone on a long pole that is held above the heads of the actors as they speak their lines. Does it sound easy? Former boom man Chris O'Donnell says it's not.

"On a film set," Mr. O'Donnell says, "there are 130 people who are worried about how the movie looks and maybe three people concerned with how it sounds."

A boom man must work with the lighting department to make sure the boom mike doesn't cast a shadow that's seen on film. He may have to ask the props department to get actors in a scene to use quieter paper plates instead of noisy china. "There's a lot to it," O'Donnell says. "You need to be able to get along with everyone...."

O'Donnell is now business manager for the New England Film Mechanics Union, but he still harbors fond memories of his times on the sets of "A Simple Plan," "My Best Friend's Wedding," and "Spider Man," among others.

"It's a fun job," he says, "because you really are in the middle of the filmmaking process." Happily, that process includes food.

"Craft services is definitely an unsung hero," he says. "But there are advantages and disadvantages to that. The advantage is that you have a constant source of food and protein. The disadvantage is that you have a constant source of food and protein. You can gain a few pounds."

Gaffer, best boy, and key grip

The gaffer, or "juicer," is the chief lighting technician and electrician. His primary concern is lighting the set, but he also supervises the entire electrical crew.

Why "gaffer"? "The gaffer, some say, derives from the gaff pole," reveals Stephen Kaye, "which was the pole used to adjust the lights up on the grid above the set." Mr. Kaye is a gaffer and the president of Kaye Lites lighting rental company. "But that's the problem with the film industry," he continues. "It's all lore, so it's hard to tell where these names really came from."

While Kaye may not be entirely sure of the origin of his job title, he is certain as to why he enjoys his job.

"The thing that makes lighting great," Kaye says, "is that you can create moods, and paint with light."

The gaffer's right-hand man is the "best boy." These days, however, the best boy doesn't just work with the gaffer.

"You may now have a gaffer and a key grip who share the same best boy," Kaye says. "It's an important role, because sometimes the best boy needs to know everything."

The "key grip" is the person in charge of all the other grips - "key" as in "chief." Kaye has done those jobs and knows they're hard work. But they have benefits, too. They help you gain experience in many filmmaking disciplines. Also, they allow access to craft services.

"One of the nice perks is that you can go to the craft-service table anytime and grab something to nibble," Kaye says.

Need a forest? Call a greensman.

Movies often teem with forests. Most moviegoers don't realize, however, that these "forests" may be potted plants put there by the greensman and crew.

"A greensman builds environments by either taking a location and changing it to fit the script," says movie greensman Geoffrey Cormier, "or creating an environment on a soundstage."

"In 'Muppets in Space,' " Mr. Cormier continues, "I had to build a forest in a soundstage.... For 'The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland,' I actually had to create [mechanical] trees."

Most of what Cormier does, though, is hide things - things like buildings. He'll put a tree on the set to block out a distracting building or to cover a sign. This process is called "greening out."

"The real trick is to make it as natural as possible," Cormier says. "When people are watching, they don't know that these environments didn't exist previously." According to him, "Anytime you see a beautifully landscaped piece of property, it very well could have been a parking lot prior to the movie."

To see examples of Cormier's work, go to www.cinematic-greensman.com. His most recent project was "Cold Mountain." (Not for kids; it's rated R. But "Muppets in Space" is also a fine example of Cormier's work.)

Just keep the food coming

"I've been told that food is just as important as the camera," says caterer David Craig. "If you don't do a good job, boy ... they're grumpy."

That's why good craft services - the people who provide film crews with meals and snacks - are so adored.

Here's what Mr. Craig's company, Catering by Craig, brings to a film set:

"We start them out with a breakfast in the morning," Craig says. "Three hours after that, they get a 'substantial' - which is a sandwich - and three hours after that they get a lunch buffet. And three hours after that they get another substantial. We serve salmon, chicken, fish; we have a salad bar, a dessert table ... and every meal has a vegetarian option." Whew! Hollywood gets hungry!

Craig has been catering movie sets for a while, feeding the casts of such films as "The Rev" and "Vendetta," but it took him a long time to get there. His advice to aspiring movie-set caterers: "It's a tough business, but once you get in there, you're in there."

The right noise at the right time

Movies are full of sound and fury, and often the sound is just as much pretend as the fury. The ones who create the fake sounds are called foley artists. They're named for Jack Foley, who gets credit for inventing the craft in the early days of sound.

"The first function of the foley artist is to re-create sound effects that are directly related to human response or human physical action," says foley artist Gary Boggess, "like walking, falling, or even kissing. The second function is to replace the [sounds created by] body gestures and movements, and these are usually done by rubbing cloth. The third role is to create any sound effects for when a character is holding a prop. This would include things like picking up or setting things down, putting on or taking off a hat, or fumbling with a phone."

Any other sound, like the squeal of a tire or the ring of a bell, is usually pulled from a sound-effects library.

"A bell is a bell is a bell," says Boggess. "A foley artist doesn't do that. A gun would not be a foley effect, because guns, once they're triggered, all basically sound the same."

The art of foley lies in providing the walking and cloth sounds in a film. That's because these are the most common things that characters do in a film. According to Boggess, adding these sounds can add a lot to a character and to a scene.

"I've compared foley I've produced with the sound from the set," he says, "and it's amazing how much better the foley sounds. It's more dramatic, and it helps you focus on the scene better than the actual sound of that scene could."

Boggess has enjoyed working on a wide variety of films, from "Batman and Robin" to "Puppet Master IV." He encourages others to become foley artists, too. Anyone who wants to become a foley artist, however, should know how to approach the job.

"You have to have a more musical approach to sound effects," Boggess says. "Sound effects in film today are another kind of music."

People enjoy being recognized for doing good work. But they don't like being recognized for bad work. That's why some film directors change their screen-credit names to 'Alan Smithee' if they think their movie is especially bad.

According to imdb.com, Alan Smithee is a 'common pseudonym for directors whose film was clearly taken away from her/him and recut heavily against her/his wishes in ways that completely altered the film.' Even prominent directors like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer have asked to be 'Alan Smithee.'

The Directors Guild of America generally does not allow directors to take their names off the films they have directed. But if a director can make the case that a film was edited or changed dramatically without his or her consent, the Guild will allow that director to use the name Alan Smithee instead.

Films 'directed' by Alan Smithee include 'Call of the Wild' (1993 version), 'National Lampoon's Senior Trip' (1995), quite a few made-for-TV movies, and an early episode of 'MacGyver' (1985-92).

Smithee's first credited movie was 'Death of a Gunfighter' (1969), with Richard Widmark and Lena Horne. Surprisingly, it got several good reviews.

A 2002 documentary exploring this phenomenon, 'Who is Alan Smithee?,' first aired on the AMC cable-TV channel.

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